Happy Birthday, Condi: A Celebration of the Political Pantsuit

Clinton Rice Thatcher Split Preta - H 2013

Clinton Rice Thatcher Split Preta - H 2013

In honor of Condoleezza Rice's 59th birthday, we examine politics' most prominent style staple.

She may have been, as even her opponents admitted, “tough enough to kick-start the Concorde,” but Margaret Thatcher was just as strong in her insistence that a woman in politics could lead -- and still look like a woman.

The Iron Lady, in fact, left the landscape of political fashion as changed as she did the British economy. She gave both a makeover. Pre-Maggie, serious women on both sides of the Atlantic were expected to wear a slightly feminized version of the basic male power suit — a straight skirt and a two- or three-button jacket in dark “business fabrics” (blue and gray pinstripes were favorites), with a loosely tied bow often standing in for the power tie.

PHOTOS: Politics of Fashion: Ann Romney vs. Michelle Obama

After acceding to the Tory Party’s image makers by abandoning her hats, Thatcher insisted on establishing her own style —elegantly tailored suits in a range of colors. In turn, she sparked a  style revolution for powerful women.

Among them, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who turns 59 today. During her White House years, she wore pearls and properly academic tailored suits one day and black high-heeled boots and long, military-style coats the next. Hers was a look that said, “I can negotiate an arms accord or sit down at the piano and play a Mozart concerto." (Either of which she actually could do.)

Hillary Clinton, with her stylishly signature pantsuits, took power dressing to the next level. Her carefully crafted style, perfected in the Beverly Hills atelier of her longtime suit designer Susanna Chung Forest, keep her looking cool and collected under pressure. With tailored pants and longer jackets that were nipped in at the waist and skimmed the hip, Clinton showed that business dressing for women could be feminine, comfortable and wrinkle-free -- even while traveling around the globe.

STORY: Michelle Obama Wears Tom Ford to Dinner With the Royals

"When I design her suits, I think about season and where she will wear them, " Forest tells The Hollywood Reporter. "The cut has to be very simple, elegant and soft-looking. I look for lighter fabric that won't wrinkle and is easy to pack."

One upside of wearing pantsuits: "She doesn't have to worry about her pantyhose," Forest said. "She puts on a pantsuit and she's ready to go."

SHAKE ON IT: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, and Rice have a firm grip on traditional political dress.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, another pantsuit aficionado, may wear the same scoop-neck blouse and three-button blazer for every occasion, but she appears to have one in every shade on the color wheel. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi took her oath of office as the first female Speaker of the House wearing one of her signature monochromatic pantsuits. They’re almost all by Armani and her husband, Paul, usually picks them out for her, since she hates to shop.

Her politics may have been conservative, but there was nothing stodgy about Sarah Palin’s look-- waist-length jackets with bracelet sleeves -- on the campaign trail, even if it cost her party six figures and owed something to the eye of Barneys personal shoppers. Meanwhile, Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman nominated for vice president (on the Democrats’ 1984 ticket) broke new ground by campaigning in long pearls and actual dresses, often in vibrant colors.

STORY: Who Is Thom Browne? Michelle Obama Chooses Award-Winning Menswear Designer 

It all goes back to Thatcher. Perhaps most liberating, she was frank that modern leadership made different demands on a woman’s appearance than on a man’s. "I really only dress in two kinds of ways,” she once told an interviewer from the conservative-friendly Daily Telegraph. “One, the way I am dressed now, in a classic suit and blouse. It's terribly important to have good blouses. And then also if you are traveling overseas and arrive by aircraft, I do find that it is much easier to arrive with a coat and dress outfit for the very simple reason that the moment you get on the aircraft you hang up your coat, and then you can put it on just before you get off and you are not full of creases."